Many ways have been devised to test the strength and health of the human heart. Treadmill stress tests are possibly the most common medical test used. But there may be a better way to test your heart’s strength and health, and you don’t even need a prescription.
It turns out the simply climbing four flights of stairs is a great way to judge your heart health. If you can do it in under a minute, your heart is very likely in good health, at least according to research presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s (ESC) recent scientific congress.
“The stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health,” said study author Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña, Spain. “If it takes you more than one-and-a-half minutes to ascend four flights of stairs, your health is suboptimal, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor.”
The scientists were interested in the connection between activities of daily living (ADL’s) and what was observed in laboratory exercise testing. “The idea was to find a simple and inexpensive method of assessing heart health,” said Dr. Peteiro. “This can help physicians triage patients for more extensive examinations.”
They began with 165 people who were diagnosed with, and experiencing symptoms of, coronary artery disease. Symptoms of coronary artery disease include chest pain or shortness of breath during activity or exertion. They started the participants on a treadmill, measuring exercise capacity as metabolic equivalents, or METs. They walked or ran as the researchers ramped up the intensity. The participants continued until they were exhausted.
After a 15 to 20 minute rest period, the researchers moved them to the stairs. The patients were asked to climb four flights of stairs, 60 stairs in total. They were instructed to move at a fast pace without stopping, but not to run. The time needed by each patient to complete the task was recorded.
Then, the relationship between the METs noted during the treadmill exercise test and how long it took to climb the 60 steps was analyzed. Those patients able to climb the stairs in 40-45 seconds were measured at 9-10 METs. Earlier research has shown that cranking out 10 METs during an exercise test is connected to a lower mortality rate. Those who took a minute and a half or longer to climb the stairs measured less than 8 METs. That translates to a 2 to 4 percent increase in mortality rate, or about a 30% increase over 10 years.
To get a better sense of the connection between the stair climb and heart health, the researchers took images of the patients’ hearts during the treadmill tests. Generally speaking, if your heart is working normally during exercise, it indicates a low likelihood of coronary artery disease.
They compared their findings to what they measured on the stair climb. Only 32% of those who finished the stair climb in less than a minute showed signs of abnormal heart function, compared with 58% of those taking 1 1/2 minutes or more.
Dr. Peteiro believes that while the link between the time needed to climb the stairs and the METs generated would be similar in the general population, the corresponding heart function and mortality rates wouldn’t be as profound as for those with suspected or confirmed coronary artery disease and its symptoms.
Millions of people undergo medical exercise tests to assess heart health every year. But you can test yours on any set of 60 stairs using just your watch. No prescription necessary.
Keep the faith and keep after it!